Chapel Hill (AP) — The 44 members of the U.S. Navy B-1 Band cracked the color barrier, leaving an impression on the Chapel Hill community during their two-year service on UNC’s campus during World War II.
The community commemorated their contribution with a historical marker Saturday at the intersection of West Franklin and South Roberson streets.
Among the band members was the late Abe Thurman of Beaufort.
Mr. Thurman died Sept. 21, 2016, at the age of 94. He joined the U.S. Navy shortly after completing his education at A&T State University.
“They were the men who knew music. We read it. We could arrange it,” member Huey Lawrence said on the band’s website. “Most people back then thought black music was just jamming. But we played the classics, for the officers, the admirals, for dances for the movie stars. We played stocks, the classics, concert music and marching songs.”
They were formally inducted into the Navy on May 27, 1942, at a recruiting station in Raleigh – four years before the Navy adopted integration and equal rights policies for black service members. Before that, black Navy service members could serve only as cooks and porters.
They trained in Norfolk, Va., before transferring to the Navy’s PreFlight School at UNC in July 1942.
Although they served under the Navy’s general rating, segregationist laws prevented them from living and eating on campus.
Four prominent black Chapel Hill residents – Harold M. Holmes, Albert Register, Kenneth Jones and O.D. Clark – offered the use of a new Negro Community Center – now Hargraves – in the Northside neighborhood near downtown. The band members lived there until being transferred in May 1944 to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Those years in Chapel Hill were a big deal for the black community, the band’s history states.
Children would gather each morning to watch the men march to campus in strict formation to play for assembled cadets six days a week at the raising of the colors.
The late Rebecca Clark, a longtime Northside resident and civil rights activist, remembered the band in a 2007 town news release.
“They’d come by before the kids went to school and before most of us had gone to work,” she said. “All the people, especially the kids, would come out to watch them parade by. Every morning. It was really something to see, all those boys in their white uniforms. It made us all proud.”
Her son, John Clark, who would later perform with his brother in the band Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts, recalled his fondness for the saxophone music, and how B-1 Band leader James B. Parsons inspired his brother.
“Doug and I and all the kids in the neighborhood would run out to Roberson Street when we heard the band coming, and we followed them as far as we could,” Mr. Clark said.
The bandsmen also embraced the community, dedicating free time to outreach programs and music lessons for local children in their barracks. They provided equipment for football games and organized Christmas parties at which one member would dress as Santa Claus, the website noted.
A few members formed a dance band, the Cloudbusters, and others went on to marry local girls.
History shows their influence beyond the black community, however, through patriotic gatherings, war bond rallies, concerts featuring stars such as Kay Kyser and Kate Smith and special events, including ship launchings and visits by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vice President Henry A. Wallace.
The road was not always smooth, as Mr. Parsons explained in recounting their arrival in Chapel Hill:
“Just outside of town we got off our bus and were met by the officers and three companies of cadets in dress whites, like ours, and we assembled to parade into town. People started coming out on Franklin Street to see what was happening,” he said.
“They started jeering at us, calling us all kinds of ugly names, most of them racial slurs. They were throwing mud and rocks at us. I got cut on my cheek. At least one instrument was dented. My men had mud all over them. But in the midst of all that, they held their heads high. I'd never heard them play better.”
Calvin Morrow, one of the band’s original members explained in 2007, “It was straight segregation back then. There might have been a couple of places where you could eat. Certainly not on campus, not in downtown Chapel Hill. And you certainly wanted to be real careful if you ever left barracks.”
UNC Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser apologized to band members that year for their treatment, and they became honorary members of the Marching Tar Heels during halftime of a Carolina-James Madison football game in Kenan Stadium.
The marker will be Chapel Hill's fourth. The others commemorate UNC’s founding, U.S. astronauts who trained at Morehead Planetarium and the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation.
North Carolina has added more than 1,500 historical markers along state highways since the program began in 1935.